President Obama has already conceded that last week's midterm elections put an end for now to his "cap-and-trade" plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but European officials fear the GOP gains mark the death knell for the broader campaign for a binding worldwide agreement this year to address climate change.
Mr. Obama told reporters that he has given up hope that Congress can approve his plan to establish a market to curb carbon emissions. Although he could try to impose restrictions through the Environmental Protection Agency, the process could be held up in courts for years. So the president has little good news to deliver to world leaders ahead of the next round of international climate talks later this month.
A top European climate official said binding international greenhouse gas targets are impossible without U.S. action on domestic caps, and that the talks, scheduled to take place in Cancun, Mexico, should focus on a voluntary framework instead.
"Forget the legal agreement — you can't get it. That's the reality," John Prescott, Council of Europe rapporteur on climate change issues, told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program. "The Americans can't deliver anyway, and if they tried to get something through Congress, they couldn't get it anyway.''
Without assurances that the U.S. is on track to meet its own targets, analysts say, China, India and other rapidly growing economies — and leading polluters — have little incentive to sign on to an enforceable emissions-reduction pact.
Indeed, a standoff between Washington and Beijing nearly sank the deal that emerged from last year's high-profile U.N.-sponsored summit in Copenhagen, which produced a nonbinding accord widely panned as weak. Under that agreement, Mr. Obama pledged to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent in 2020 and contribute to a $100 billion global fund to help developing countries deal with climate change.
Mr. Obama surrendered on "cap-and-trade" before he attends the Group of 20 summit this week in Seoul. Asked how the president will explain the situation to world leaders looking for U.S. leadership on climate change, the White House cited several other measures short of setting a price on carbon emissions.
"You could, for instance, as many states have done throughout the country, have a renewable-energy standard that said a certain amount of your power will be generated using renewable sources, which obviously would cut down, by definition, on greenhouse gases," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Mr. Gibbs said the administration has offered government loan guarantees on the construction of nuclear plants and pushed for stricter fuel-efficiency standards on vehicles.
"People are still concerned both about climate change as well as our ever-growing dependence on foreign oil," he said. "But there's more than one way to fix that."
Still, Mr. Obama ranked energy and climate change as one of his top three priorities upon entering office.
Compounding the president's problem is that many House Democrats who supported "cap and trade" were punished by voters and won't be returning to Congress next year.
"He's in a very bad position," said Patrick J. Michaels, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who has a doctorate in climatology. "You saw what cap-and-trade did to the U.S. House of Representatives. I am sure that he wishes that he hadn't gone to Copenhagen or hadn't directed" the EPA to issue its finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health.
The EPA declaration, released to coincide with the beginning of the Copenhagen meeting, set the federal government on the path toward regulating of emissions from power plants, factories, automobiles and other major sources of carbon dioxide — even if Congress failed to act. Mr. Obama was vague when asked at his postelection news conference Wednesday about the EPA proceeding, saying the agency "wants help from the legislature on this" but not ruling out unilateral executive action.
Lawmakers, including many in Mr. Obama's own party, are hoping to put the brakes on the EPA, however.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV has introduced a bill that would block the agency from regulating greenhouse gases for two years. His incoming colleague, Sen.-elect Joe Manchin III, also a West Virginia Democrat, shot a hole through the "cap-and-trade bill" in a campaign ad.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has promised Mr. Rockefeller a vote on the measure sometime this year, during the lame-duck session of Congress.
Despite the domestic headwinds, Kyle Ash of Greenpeace USA said he sees a way forward for international negotiators. Mr. Ash, a senior legislative representative for the environmental group, said the failure of U.S. lawmakers to act shouldn't affect the dynamics of the Cancun conference and argued that the "cap-and-trade" bills going through Congress, at least in the Senate, were not strong enough anyway.
"Getting a price on carbon would have been about this perceptual political backing for strong action," Mr. Ash said. "This is totally an issue of leadership from the administration."
At the same time, Mr. Ash said, the Obama administration deserves blame for leaving the situation so precarious by publicly "denigrating" the Kyoto Protocol, which some countries want to have extended before it expires in 2012. It's in the president's interest for his aides to put aside hardball tactics and get something accomplished, he said.
Mr. Ash said the administration's tough bargaining stance is "making it harder to come to a commitment and it's the opposite of what Obama said he would do, which is lead on climate."
Daniel Kish, a senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, an industry-backed think tank, said the administration is "going to have to eat some crow internationally," but other countries were already skeptical that Mr. Obama would be able to deliver on his pledge.
To placate environmentalists and other interests, Mr. Kish said, the White House likely will push for lawmakers to act on some sort of renewable-energy standard that would require utilities to generate a certain amount of power from renewable sources — a move he argued would hurt the U.S. economy by artificially inflating the price of energy.
"This is just another competitive disadvantage that we'd lay on ourselves unilaterally, which would change the position of the U.S. vis-a-vis the rest of the world faster than is already happening," he said.